Struggling to feel a specific muscle work? Try this!

Mar 17, 2022
Mark Carroll

“I can’t feel a burn in the muscle when I train” 

This is a sentence that I am messaged numerous times each week and is something that everyone has experienced at least once in their gym journey.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, it’s important to understand that some muscles are more responsive, in the sense of feeling them, than others. Also, some exercises will definitely associate your muscles with that ‘burning’ sensation over others – we don’t get to pick and choose! The ‘burning’ sensation comes from a whole range of aspects such as tempo, reps, sets, intensity… you name it, it plays a part!

In saying all of this, you need to remember that just because you aren’t necessarily feeling an intense burn in a muscle during an exercise, that does not automatically mean you are not effectively training that muscle. 

This is so important to understand!

Although it doesn’t mean the muscle isn’t working as effectively as if you were to feel a burn, there is still a missing mind-to-muscle connection here that we can try to improve. Here are some key strategies to improve your ability to ‘feel’ a specific muscle work during your session:

  • Execution 

Execution, in this sense, is in reference to your technique. How you perform the exercise is always going to have the greatest carryover potential to someone properly recruiting a muscle. 

Here’s the thing… If you are choosing the correct movements for the muscle group and your technique is spot on, that muscle will have no choice but to be recruited! 

Think about when we run – we do not choose what we want to activate, we just run! Our lower body is recruited to execute the goal of running. Simple! 

When it comes to lifting, yes there are more variables to things like technique and biassing a muscle group BUT, when executing correctly with the mechanics that will allow you to shorten and lengthen a muscle under load, that muscle is always going to be worked! 

A good example is recruiting the quads in a squat. If I want to recruit as much quad as possible in the squat, I know that my goal is to push the knees forward as far as possible. This will ensure the quads are being fully lengthened. 

Often people struggle to feel their quads and I see their squats and they lack the ability to push their knees forward. It is not that the quads are not being trained in a squat! The issue is that their execution is not allowing them to fully lengthen the quads. A great fixture for this is to use a heel elevation which then allows the lifter to more easily drive their knees forward. With this elevation, the quad stretch increases dramatically, particularly where the quads are weakest. The result is that they feel much more quads due to their execution of the lift slightly changing to optimise the movement pattern. 

Execution matters. If you want to feel a specific muscle more, ensure that your execution is promoting the goal you are after. 

  • Slower Reps 

The more advanced the lifter, the better their ability to quickly recruit the muscle fibres they are wanting to recruit. They are more neurologically efficient which means their ability to basically do advanced movements almost effortlessly is very natural. 

Lifting technique is a skill. That’s why a lot of advanced bodybuilders have explosive form (in the sense that they warm up quickly due to faster neurological advancements from training). This however, is not often ideal for beginner to intermediate lifters. They have yet to build up their neurological efficiency to be able to easily recruit the fibres they are wanting with a faster tempo. This is why I love controlled tempo, such as slower eccentric and concentric reps, initially for clients or at least for exercises they are struggling on. Slowing down the rep speed can greatly improve someone’s ability to understand what muscles they are trying to recruit. Tell a beginner to contract their glutes or lats, they will have no idea, let alone contract them under load in an exercise. 

Slower reps for the win!

  • Pauses 

Just as slowing down your rep speed can help a client learn to more effectively feel a muscle, pauses can also very much help to improve a sense of recruitment. Adding a pause into a rep means we are using an isometric contraction. An isometric is when a muscle is recruited, but it is not lengthening or shortening. For example, pausing at the bottom of the squat is isometric as the quads are lengthened but they are not lengthening or shortening anymore in this specific part of the movement –  the muscle is simply being recruited without any further stretch or shortening. 

The benefit of pause reps (isometric contractions) is that it improves neural drive to a muscle! Neural drive involves the nervous system sending signals to a muscle via motor units. Motor units are then what tells a muscle to be recruited. The more signals we can send to recruit a muscle obviously is a good thing for someone who is struggling to feel a muscle recruit. 

This is why when I use ‘glute activation work’ with clients, I am a big fan of paused reps in the warm ups, such as paused hip thrusts. Isometric contractions at the top of the exercise where the glutes are under most tension can be a fantastic strategy before a client then goes into their working sets of hip thrusts. 

Where should you be adding the pauses? Where the exercise is the hardest! 

  • Squat: the bottom of the rep. 
  • Bench press: bottom of the rep. 
  • Lateral raises: top of the rep.
  • Hip thrusts: top of the rep. 

You get the idea!

A quick note: the pause does not have to be super long. A solid 2-3 second pause for each rep can do wonders! 

  •  Adjust your Exercise Order

Exercise order impacts your strength potential. If there is an exercise you most want to get stronger on, we want to place this first in the workout. This is why, in general, you will have your big, compound lifts at the start of your workout (squats, deadlifts, bench, chin ups etc.). I know that as a coach, I want my clients to be performing these exercises first, when their nervous system is less fatigued. This will give the lifter their greatest ability to perform at their highest level.

But, just as doing an exercise early will allow you to lift more weight because the nervous system is not so fatigued, the same goes as you fatigue during a workout. The more you fatigue, the lower your ability you have to gain really great muscle contractions in a shortened position.

Ever done biceps first in your workout? I love the machine preacher curl. I often use it during an arms workout as the first exercise in my session. With each rep, when fresh, I get amazing, hard contractions and feel every single fibre work throughout the range of motion, especially at the top. 

Recently, I have also been training my biceps after a big back workout which involves a lot of elbow flexion (biceps recruitment). When I perform a machine preacher curl after 12-15 sets of back, I notice my ability to get the same high level contractions has dropped off noticeably. I am still performing the same movement with the exact same technique and control but in a much more fatigued state. This means that the ability to contract the biceps as hard at the top from a mind muscle connection has been lowered. 

Does this mean I am not working the biceps? No! I still am but the fatigue accumulated over the session has led to the mind muscle connection and hard contractions feeling noticeably less. 

This is why on exercises you are really struggling on, try a training phase of placing these movements FIRST in your workout. 

Often just by rotating the order of your exercises can have someone realise they do feel their muscles work on a certain movement. They are often just performing those exercises late in their workout when already fatigued. 

In summary, don’t freak out if you are not always feeling a muscle. Often it’s because people associate weights with extreme burns from things like booty bands… True lifting is not going to give you that same burn. An intense burn or pain is not always actually a good thing, but a sign something is wrong.

What we want to feel when we lift is a muscle lengthen and shorten. Ideally, you should feel the muscle throughout the movement, but again, this does not always mean an intense burn!

But, if you are struggling with muscle recruitment, try these above strategies that I have use and still use with my clients!


Mark Carroll